The unfinished but already jewel box-like tatami room at the front of Guu SakaBar | 559 Bloor Street West.
20 March 2011, 5:20PM update from our Twitter feed: Walked by @GuuSakabar 15 minutes ago and they are indeed finally open, and for probably the only time in their history, there isn’t a line-up–yet.
By West Annex News | Chowhound first voiced the rumours in July of 2010. By the fall several media outlets confirmed them: Guu Izakaya, the insanely successful Japanese-style pub at 398 Church Street in Toronto is opening a second location at 559 Bloor Street West, in what is now the most eagerly anticipated debut on the Bloor-West Annex strip.
The space, just east of Bathurst, was previously occupied by Burger King, and before that, CFNY Radio’s street-front studio.
559 Bloor Street West's previous incarnation was a Burger King | Screen capture from Google street view
Construction has been ongoing on for many months now, during which time various sites have speculated on the date the Annex Guu will open its doors.
We contacted Hyunsoo Kim, the general manager at Guu Izakaya, who generously invited us in to see the state of the renovations on February 17, 2011.
Although still very much a construction site, the restaurant interior is taking shape.
The sushi bar to the left and the tatami room up front.
Entering the restaurant from the back kitchen entrance, we were immediately attracted to the beautiful tatami room up front, which although only partially finished, already glows like an exquisite jewel box. The many small square port hole-style windows, familiar from the Church Street location, allow twinkling light into the raw quartz-tiled room, and offer glimpses out to Bloor Street. The hardwood floors and textured wooden ceiling tiles give the room a warm glow.
The entranceway off Bloor is a long hall that runs adjacent to the east wall of the tatami room. It has been thoughtfully laid out to provide a large area where patrons can wait in line, sheltered from the outdoors, but separated by a wall from those already seated in the restaurant. Given Guu’s no-reservation policy, admittedly designed to try to keep out demographic undersirables like aging boomers, one suspects that the line-up will continue right out the door and down the laneway that lies to the immediate east of Guu’s building.
The sushi bar, located mid-restaurant on the west wall. The open kitchen is to the left
Right behind the tatami room on the west wall is the sushi bar, finished in rough grey barn-board.
Taking delivery of appliances in Guu SakaBar's gleaming all-stainless open kitchen
Behind the bar in the south-west corner of the building is an open kitchen, already gleaming with its stainless steel walls, and appliances that were just being delivered during out visit.
The main dining room is directly opposite the open kitchen, occupying the south-east corner of the building. It’s now barely roughed-in, and is packed with construction materials and machinery.
We drew this rough, not-to-scale floor plan based on our visit to Guu SakaBar on February 17, 2011
We prepared the sketch, left, of the basic layout of Guu SakaBar after our visit.
Although extremely busy supervising construction and taking delivery of appliances and materials, both General Manager Hyunsoo Kim and manager of the Annex location Natsuhiko Sugimoto were generous with their time answering our questions during the visit. They said the opening is now expected in
mid early March 2011. Asked about the menu, Kim said some of the dishes from Church Street will be available in the Annex location, but that they planned “many surprises”, details of which Kim told us, with a smile, that he is saving for the opening.
It was only after we left the premise and inspected the business card that Sugimoto gave us that we noticed that the Annex location is not described as an izakaya restaurant–which in Japan means a cheap and cheerful after-work pub for drinking and snacking while waiting out the worst of rush-hour traffic–but a saka bar. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, in Tokyo at least, saka bars are often a step up in sophistication; more cocktails-and-tapas than pub.
The first Toronto location of this popular Vancouver franchise has polarized Toronto diners. The Church Street spot ranks number 3 on Joanne Kates’ current top ten restaurants in Toronto and number 2 on NOW’s most overrated restaurants. But a careful review of the comments section of most on-line reviews generally shows raves for the imaginative and well-executed food, but loathing for line-ups for seats of up to two hours.
Maguro tataki: lighly seared BC albacore tuna sashimi with ponzu sauce and garlic chips ($6.80) from Guu Izakaya's Church Street location | photo credit Sifu Renka
This second location should alleviate the line ups somewhat. And line-ups are nothing for habitués of the Bloor-West Annex strip, long-practiced in the art of the line thanks to venues like Lee’s Palace, the Brunswick House, New Generation Sushi and Sushi on Bloor. Guu SakaBar should be a perfect fit for a neighbourhood already obsessed with Japanese food and willing to put in some time to get it.